What will become of us when the good times end?
The last 5 years have seen possibly the greatest existential crisis for progressive liberal democracy since the 1930s and the World War that followed. From the ashes of a global recession and with the undeniable threat of international communism, Europeans en masse turned to demagogues hailing the still youthful concept of nationalism as the means to redemption.
With the rise of Western Europe and eventual US hegemony, historian Francis Fukuyama can be forgiven for baldly declaring that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant “The End of History”. Progressive Liberal Democracy had proven so unprecedentedly successful that it seemed unthinkable that any society that enjoyed it would ever voluntarily surrender it.
Now just 10 years after the Global Financial Crisis brought the international economy to its knees, we see the rise of strong man dictators in nations that once at least held fledgling democracies. Whilst Western Europe has not entirely surrendered the actual institutions of democracy that elect their leaders, they have used those institutions to elect politicians with increasingly nationalist, isolationist, and frankly undemocratic tendencies.
Almost every nation in Western Europe has a far right political party with some measure of political influence. In France Marie Le Pen’s National Front party made the final round vote for Presidency against Emmanuel Macron. Whilst Germany’s hero of the West Angela Merkle was forced to cede some of her power to the right wing Alternative for Germany who remain the largest opposition party in the country. Italy, Greece, even famously progressive Sweden have far right parties claiming political clout.
In the USA, Trump may or may not himself harbour far right beliefs, but what is important is that far right nationalists believe he does. What he does vociferously stand for, as with the right wing parties of Europe and those that campaigned for Brexit in the UK, is an unashamed capitalisation on the fear of immigrants and minorities.
But these parties are not suddenly discovering a new political tool, scapegoating has existed for centuries; they are only choosing to propagate these narratives in the open now because it is politically expedient to do so. They know a large portion of their constituency is unhappy in the wake of the GFC, it is amongst the oldest political ploys to identify a simple cause to their discontent (immigrants) and then present themselves as the only possible solution to this cause.
As economist Bill Emmott points out in his book The Fate of the West, what drove the people of Europe to lose faith in progressive and democratic institutions was a loss of trust in the system that had suddenly betrayed them with economic misery. The commonality between today and the 1930s is undeniable.
So how has Australia fared during this moment of international change? Well on the face of it, our institutions have held strong and we have more or less avoided any tendency to demagoguery. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party is the obvious name that comes to mind when concerning yourself with anti-immigration policies but it must be remembered that no One Nation candidate has ever held a seat in the House of Representatives. Whilst Pauline and a few eccentric colleagues perform political stunts and utilise their platform for inflammatory speeches, it remains implausible that her political party could reasonably aspire to one day hold the keys to the Lodge.
So why is this? Are we simply a more mature and progressive electorate? Definitely not. If anything, our starting point is already closer to the right than most of Europe or the USA was in 2008. Our nation was born with overtly racist immigration policies and John Howard inspired a healthy fear of refugee invasions almost 20 years ago.
The more likely explanation is that Australia, unlike the rest of the Western World, simply hasn’t experienced the same depth of economic calamity to break the “trust” that Bill Emmet refers to in his book. Through a mix of good fortune and good management, we avoided the brunt of the GFC. 2018 saw an extension of the longest period of economic growth in the developed world. Our unemployment rate continues to hover around 5%, around half that of France and Italy and a quarter of what is being experienced in Greece. Whilst the US and the UK actually have a lower unemployment rate than Australia at the moment, this is off the back of highs above 10% for both nations in the wake of the GFC. Australia’s unemployment for the same period never rose above 6%.
This means almost all Australians have enjoyed an almost unbroken 26 year positive experience with globalisation unlike any other country on earth. This fact alone has acted as a kind of bulwark against allowing Australia’s casual racism to escalate into political capital. What market is there for scapegoating when everything is going so well?
The concern all Australians should hold though, with the lessons of Europe and the USA clear in their mind, is what will become of us when the good times end? When our middle class finds themselves suddenly robbed of the seemingly inalienable right to wealth afforded to all Australians upon birth, will they seek to identify a cause for their hardship beyond the pitfalls of market forces?
It is within this climate I fear for the exposure of Australia’s historically racist underbelly. Has Australia really moved on from its infamous history of state sponsored racism? Or has our nature merely been concealed by the flood of economic growth, lying ready to be re-exposed once the waters inevitably recede.
It is not a matter of if, but when we will be forced to face our demons under the pressure of recession. Will our trust in the global order that has brought us the last 26 years of wealth be broken by the briefest moment of contraction? Or will we remember that the good times were not just in the 1950s or 60s, but also in the first two decades of the 21st century, when the values of globalisation and internationalism were hailed as the platform for our success.